Once struggling, Britain’s corner shops give comfort to UK shoppers

Why We Wrote This

In Britain, the pandemic is giving new life to the local corner store, a business once threatened by the internet and big-box stores. That suggests small-town life is more resilient than it has seemed.

Dylan Martinez/Reuters
A woman in a protective mask browses at Andreas grocery store after it received a delivery of fresh fruit and vegetables, amid the coronavirus pandemic in London, March 20, 2020.

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For many years, there has been real concern that the heart and soul of Britain’s traditional towns and villages have been disappearing. Superstores expanded into almost every neighborhood, competing heavily on price and offering the convenience of everything under one roof.

Now, the pandemic has shoppers abandoning the big supermarkets and out-of-town stores that had come to dominate the British retail landscape. Thousands of corner shops and independent stores saw an overall 63% surge in trade at the peak of the lockdown in the United Kingdom, according to analyst firm Kantar.

Nazir Zondo, the manager of Dunorlan Park Stores in Royal Tunbridge Wells, estimates that the store rang up double the transactions since lockdown in mid-March. “There were queues outside the door, with more people than ever coming in, asking for things that we’d never even stocked before,” he says. “I was working six days a week, sometimes even coming in on my one day off.”

It wasn’t just about shopping either, says James Kilgallon, who lives a 2-minute walk away. “Where previously I was in and out, during the lockdown I’d end up staying and chatting a bit.”

For much of Britain’s economy, the coronavirus pandemic has been devastating. But the small corner shop on Windmill Street in Royal Tunbridge Wells, a historic market town in Kent, has never been busier.

Since lockdown in mid-March, Dunorlan Park Stores’ regular customers – who previously only came in to stock up on drinks for the weekend, or buy a pint of milk or treats for the children – have been coming in almost daily to get more of their groceries and household goods. Business has been so good, in fact, that the profits have been reinvested to create more floor space and a larger line of supplies.

Nazir Zondo, the store’s manager, estimates that the store rang up double the transactions during this period. “There were queues outside the door, with more people than ever coming in, asking for things that we’d never even stocked before,” he says. “I was working six days a week, sometimes even coming in on my one day off.”

For many years, there has been real concern that the heart and soul of Britain’s traditional towns and villages have been disappearing. Superstores expanded into almost every neighborhood, competing heavily on price and offering the convenience of everything under one roof.

Now, the pandemic has shoppers abandoning the big supermarkets and out-of-town stores that had come to dominate the British retail landscape. And Dunorlan Park Stores is one of thousands of corner shops and independent stores that saw an overall 63% surge in trade at the peak of the lockdown in the United Kingdom, according to analyst firm Kantar. The question plaguing the big, billion-dollar grocers such as Tesco and Asda is whether this abrupt change might become permanent.

“Staying and chatting a bit”

Not three months ago, the owners of Dunorlan Park Stores had been considering shutting down the shop. Other store owners in town had died of COVID-19 and the risk seemed too great. But local residents, who were no longer making the 50-minute daily commute to London, begged the shop to stay open. They were happy to pay the extra 10 pence to 20 pence (13 cents to 26 cents) per item if it meant supporting the local business and avoiding supermarkets, says Mr. Zondo.

It wasn’t just that the pandemic had changed shopping schedules, says James Kilgallon, a sales consultant who used to spend much of his week on the road and in face-to-face client meetings. He was in the shop, a 2-minute walk from his flat, almost every day during lockdown, spending £25 to £35 ($32 to $45) each time. But in addition to the ease of getting everything he wanted in the little shop, Mr. Kilgallon says the shop served as a small bit of contact with other adults outside the household. “Where previously I was in and out, during the lockdown I’d end up staying and chatting a bit,” he says.

Mr. Kilgallon says that for his weekly shopping, he goes online, like millions of other Britons. Fraser McKevitt, the head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar, says that 1.6 million more shoppers had switched to buying groceries online so far this year than in the previous five years. “Although restrictions have eased, more than 1 in 5 households still made an online order during the latest four weeks,” he says. Shopping online “now accounts for 13% of all grocery sales in Great Britain, which is up from 7.4% in March and reflects a significant increase in capacity by the grocers.”

The trouble for supermarkets is that selling online is largely a loss-making endeavor that steals trade away from stores. Industry experts suggest that with more people now working from home, the business that’s gone online is not likely to return to brick-and-mortar stores.

Not returning to the cities

The change in grocery-buying habits is a side effect of the larger phenomenon of the pandemic’s effect on cities across Britain. With just one-third of white collar workers having returned to their offices in the country – compared with 83% in France and 76% in Italy – main street businesses are shedding jobs. More than 150,000 workers are at risk or have been laid off since the pandemic began according to data gathered by the Press Association news agency, with many of Britain’s biggest companies struggling to stay afloat or calling in administrators.

The picture of post-lockdown Britain that is beginning to emerge is of a society keen to return to something like its roots. Small villages and traditional towns seem relatively unscathed, while in the City of London, businesses are boarded up and the streets lie empty. That is a reversal for historical towns, long threatened by corporate jobs luring 20-somethings away to big cities. The numbers suggest Britons, already fed up with long commutes on densely packed and expensive trains, have thoroughly embraced working from home.

“A lot of the residents of Tunbridge Wells are commuters, and so many are actually better off because they don’t have to pay train fares to London,” says David Hayward, a Tunbridge Wells councillor. He says the local community has rallied behind pubs and small shop owners and helped them to not only survive through the crisis, but thrive in spite of it.

Complaints about a lack of opportunities in the traditional communities – the same ones that voted for Brexit as a protest against the sense they had been left behind – are slowly but noticeably giving way to an awareness that they were more resilient in lockdown than the glass and steel towers of London.

Analysis of mobile phone data shows that in August, more people had returned to offices in towns such as Mansfield, in northern England, where 40% of staff have gone back to work, than in London, with only 13% returning. Indeed, a survey of 50 of the biggest U.K. employers conducted by the BBC revealed that most had no plans in place to return workers to the office this year. Demand for rail travel is at 31% of pre-pandemic levels, according to Department for Transport figures, and daily Tube journeys across the capital are less than a third of what they were in March.

Meanwhile, life has gone on in the shires, relatively uninterrupted. There were more people at home to enjoy it – and they don’t seem to want to go back to the commute. With more people working from home and shopping locally, the coronavirus pandemic has presented an opportunity to reestablish the character of the local communities.

In Tunbridge Wells, it wasn’t just Dunorlan Park Stores that experienced an increase in traffic – the nearby Dunorlan Park itself, popular with families and dog walkers, was busier than anyone could remember it. And the success of remote working during the pandemic has led to predictions that staff will never again return to the office full time.

“Tunbridge Wells is one of those towns where people like my wife and I who’ve done the city living thing moved out to have kids,” says Mr. Kilgallon. “Most of my mates around here were either able to work from home or had already migrated their businesses out here from London.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

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